White House

Trump pick Bolton to drive hardline agenda against Venezuela

WASHINGTON John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is expected to put a sharper focus on Venezuela as President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, applying a hard line against Nicolás Maduro’s government.

“For Latin America, he has always emphasized how Cuba and Venezuela and Nicaragua have undermined U.S. interests throughout the region,” according to a senior administration official.

But Bolton’s tough talk on North Korea and other countries will make Latin American leaders nervous, raising old fears of U.S. intervention in a region that prides itself on diplomatic solutions, according to a National Security Council official for President Barack Obama.

“He’s a war monger and Latin Americans get nervous when American presidents tend to lean toward military versus diplomatic solutions," the official said. “It's a militaristic style that won't go down well in Latin America."

Bolton believes that economically distressed Venezuela is vulnerable and that others, including Iran, continue to have great influence on the government there.

Bolton raised concerns about Venezuela in 2013. During a hearing on Syria and Iran, Bolton said Iranians were operating in Caracas to avoid international watchers. “These are expert smugglers with—the largest Iranian diplomatic facility in the world is in Caracas, Venezuela,” Bolton said at the time. “Because of their close cultural ties? No, because they are laundering their money through the Venezuelan banks."

Trump has already taken a hard line against the Venezuelan government, applying more than 20 individual and economic sanctions including restricting U.S. financial transactions involving its new digital currency.

One big question is whether Bolton will take another look at U.S. Cuba policy, according to the Obama official. Bolton blasted Obama for reopening diplomatic relations with the Castro government in 2014.

Bolton has long been an advocate for even stronger restrictions against Cuba. In 2002, as undersecretary of state, he accused Havana of trying to develop biological weapons, and added Cuba to a list of “axis of evil” countries.”

''The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,'' Bolton said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Bolton has already served under three presidents, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

"Bolton is a foreign policy professional, which is a good start, and more than you can say for the president's first two picks for secretary of state,” said Benjamin Gedan, who served as Venezuela director on the National Security Council under Obama.

Trump announced late Thursday that he would replace his second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, with Bolton in mid-April. It’s the latest in a series of staff changes in recent weeks.

Last week, Trump announced on Twitter that he would replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Bolton and Trump met regularly during the presidential transition and at the White House to discuss foreign policy. He was spotted in the West Wing earlier Thursday.

“Though he and Pompeo are considered hardliners, most governments in Latin America should not be spooked, assuming Bolton does not share the president's habit of bullying U.S. allies,” Gedan said.

In a brief statement, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has been one of the most influential lawmakers on U.S. policy in Latin America and against Venezuela, praised Trump’s selection.

“I know John Bolton well and believe he is an excellent choice who will do a great job as national security adviser,” he said.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez